There are, you probably noticed, different modes in Proust. According to the New Yorker:
“There are at least six Marcel Prousts to study, and, though we’d like to say that each feeds the others, the truth is that they exist in separate, sometimes baffling strata. There’s the Period Proust, the Toulouse-Lautrec-like painter of the high life of the Belle Époque, who offers an unmatched picture both of riding in the Bois and of visiting the brothels near the Opéra; and the Philosophical Proust, whose thoughts on the nature of time supposedly derived from the ideas of Henri Bergson and are argued to have paralleled those of Einstein. There’s the Psychological Proust, whose analysis of human motives—above all, of love and jealousy—is the real living core of his book; and the “Perverse” Proust (as the eminent scholar Antoine Compagnon refers to him), who was among the first French authors to write quite openly about homosexuality. Then there is the Political Proust, the Jewish writer who diagrammed the fault line that the Dreyfus Affair first cracked in French society, and that the war pulled apart. Finally, there’s the Poetic Proust, the pathétique Proust who writes the sentences and finds the phrases, and whose twilight intensity and violet-tinted charm make his Big Book one of the few that readers urge on friends rather than merely force on students.”
I may (or may not) come back to this point. But in terms of writing characters, I would say that there are two different modes: Comedy of Manners Proust, and Psychological Proust.
Proust begins Part 2 of Swann’s Way telling us about the Verdurin set. That is Comedy of Manners Proust—he satirises various types of people and pierces through all of their pretensions; he is comic, sometimes even grotesque; and he makes me think of Jane Austen.
Mme Verdurin, for example, once laughs so hard that she dislocates her jaw.
“From this lofty perch she would take a spirited part in the conversation of the “faithful,” and would revel in all their “drollery”; but, since the accident to her jaw, she had abandoned the effort involved in wholehearted laughter, and had substituted a kind of symbolical dumb-show which signified, without endangering or fatiguing her in any way, that she was “splitting her sides.” […] So, stupefied with the gaiety of the “faithful,” drunk with good-fellowship, scandal and asseveration, Mme Verdurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with affability.” (Vol.1, P.2)
That’s what I mean about Proust being grotesque. Her husband is also ridiculous.
“As for M. Verdurin, he was unsparing of his merriment, having recently discovered a way of expressing it by a convention that was different from his wife’s but equally simple and obvious. Scarcely had he begun the movement of head and shoulders of a man shaking with laughter than he would begin at once to cough, as though, in laughing too violently, he had swallowed a mouthful of pipe-smoke. And by keeping the pipe firmly in his mouth he could prolong indefinitely the dumb-show of suffocation and hilarity. Thus he and Mme Verdurin (who, at the other side of the room, where the painter was telling her a story, was shutting her eyes preparatory to flinging her face into her hands) resembled two masks in a theatre each representing Comedy in a different way.” (ibid.)
This is the sort of thing you expect to find in Dickens.
This is Dr Cottard, one of the people who frequent the Verdurin salon:
“Dr Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?”” (ibid.)
He doesn’t dare to have an opinion of his own. But Swann is not different. The narrator has told us from the beginning:
“When challenged by [my family] to give an opinion, or to express his admiration for some picture, he would remain almost disobligingly silent, and would then make amends by furnishing (if he could) some fact or other about the gallery in which the picture was hung, or the date at which it had been painted.” (Vol.1, P.1)
“… whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate, to sterilise it by using a special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the phrase or word between inverted commas, and was anxious to disclaim any personal responsibility for it…” (ibid.)
The narrator says this again when he writes about Swann and the Verdurin set. Swann can see the ridiculousness of the other members, but he is the same.
Here is Mme Saniette, another person in the set:
“As she was entirely uneducated, and was afraid of making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, she used purposely to speak in an indistinct and garbling manner, thinking that if she should make a slip it would be so buried in the surrounding confusion that no one could be certain whether she had actually made it or not; with the result that her talk was a sort of continuous, blurred expectoration, out of which would emerge, at rare intervals, the few sounds and syllables of which she felt sure.” (Vol.1, P.2)
This is Brichot, a professor from Sorbonne:
“For he had the sort of curiosity and superstitious worship of life which, combined with a certain scepticism with regard to the object of their studies, earns for some intelligent men of whatever profession, doctors who do not believe in medicine, schoolmasters who do not believe in Latin exercises, the reputation of having broad, brilliant and indeed superior minds.” (ibid.)
Not different from the numerous English teachers I saw on twitter who hated classic literature.
I must note that the first-person narrator is not present in any of these scenes. Proust isn’t strict about point of view.
Most ridiculous so far is probably Dr Cottard—he has no critical thinking, no opinions of his own; he takes everything in the literal sense and is easily fooled (“instead of sending Dr Cottard a ruby that cost three thousand francs and pretending it was a mere trifle, M. Verdurin bought an artificial stone for three hundred, and let it be understood that it was something almost impossible to match”); and he keeps making lame jokes, fancying himself so witty.
His wife is the same. She too has no opinions of her own. She too laughs at her own “witticism”.
“And then, in her joy and confusion at the aptness and daring of making so discreet and yet so unmistakable an allusion to the new and brilliantly successful play by Dumas, she broke into a charming, girlish laugh, not very loud, but so irresistible that it was some time before she could control it.” (ibid.)
These people all seem so insufferable. Like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Proust is ruthless. This is the Proust I like: sharp, precise, ruthless, and hilarious.
But there is another Proust—Psychological Proust—the Proust who goes on and on, for pages and for ages, about Swann’s love for Odette, or Swann’s jealousy. If you think of other psychological novelists such as Tolstoy or Flaubert, they depict characters in one mode, and move fluidly between scenes or conversations and characters’ thoughts, whereas in Proust, there is a clear division, a clear shift. Psychological Proust is analytical and not comic (though once in a while he may be funny).
“Truth to tell, as often as not, when he had stayed late at a party, he would have preferred to return home at once, without going so far out of his way, and to postpone their meeting until the morrow; but the very fact of his putting himself to such inconvenience at an abnormal hour in order to visit her, while he guessed that his friends, as he left them, were saying to one another: “He’s tied hand and foot; there must certainly be a woman somewhere who insists on his going to her at all hours,” made him feel that he was leading the life of the class of men whose existence is coloured by a love-affair, and in whom the perpetual sacrifice they make of their comfort and of their practical interests engenders a sort of inner charm. Then, though he may not consciously have taken this into consideration, the certainty that she was waiting for him, that she was not elsewhere with others, that he would see her before he went home, drew the sting from that anguish, forgotten but latent and ever ready to be reawakened, which he had felt on the evening when Odette had left the Verdurins’ before his arrival, an anguish the present assuagement of which was so agreeable that it might almost be called happiness. Perhaps it was to that hour of anguish that he owed the importance which Odette had since assumed in his life. Other people as a rule mean so little to us that, when we have invested one of them with the power to cause us so much suffering or happiness, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of one’s life a sort of stirring arena in which he or she will be more or less close to one.” (ibid.)
I keep a long passage so you see what I mean about the difference, the shift.
“… he would ask her, instead, to give him the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. It was true that Odette played vilely, but often the most memorable impression of a piece of music is one that has arisen out of a jumble of wrong notes struck by unskilful fingers upon a tuneless piano. The little phrase continued to be associated in Swann’s mind with his love for Odette. He was well aware that his love was something that did not correspond to anything outside itself, verifiable by others besides him; he realised that Odette’s qualities were not such as to justify his setting so high a value on the hours he spent in her company. And often, when the cold government of reason stood unchallenged in his mind, he would readily have ceased to sacrifice so many of his intellectual and social interests to this imaginary pleasure. But the little phrase, as soon as it struck his ear, had the power to liberate in him the space that was needed to contain it; the proportions of Swann’s soul were altered; a margin was left for an enjoyment that corresponded no more than his love for Odette to any external object and yet was not, like his enjoyment of that love, purely individual, but assumed for him a sort of reality superior to that of concrete things.” (ibid.)
My problem with Proust at the moment is not that he takes his time and writes about it for so long, but that the more he explicates the relationship between Swann and Odette, the more puzzled I am about Swann’s feeling for Odette. I simply don’t get it.
From the beginning, we are told that Swann is not sexually attracted to Odette:
“… she had struck Swann not, certainly, as being devoid of beauty, but as endowed with a kind of beauty which left him indifferent, which aroused in him no desire, which gave him, indeed, a sort of physical repulsion, as one of those women of whom all of us can cite examples, different for each of us, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand. Her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones were too prominent, her features too tightly drawn, to be attractive to him.” (ibid.)
She’s not his type, so what is his type?
“… as often as not they were women whose beauty was of a distinctly vulgar type, for the physical qualities which he instinctively sought were the direct opposite of those he admired in the women painted or sculpted by his favourite masters. Depth of character, or a melancholy expression, would freeze his senses, which were, however, instantly aroused at the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy flesh.” (ibid.)
We are told that for some time, Swann doesn’t spend the early part of his day with Odette, nor go with her to the Verdurins, because he spends that time with a young seamstress—a woman of his type.
I know that sometimes married couples who don’t love each other at the beginning may come to respect and love each other (which Chekhov depicts in “Three Years”, for instance), but it isn’t the case here.
Physically, Swann isn’t attracted to Odette, and has to associate her looks with a painting by Botticelli to find some satisfaction. Mentally, he knows she isn’t intelligent, they don’t have the same tastes, and probably don’t have much in common. Socially (this is a classist world, a world of snobs), Odette is beneath him—she is part of the demi-monde, and said to be a kept woman, a courtesan, or what we nowadays call a sugar baby. He’s also aware that their relationship may be based on self-interest on her side, for he gives her presents and sometimes helps her with her money troubles.
And yet, Swann is besotted with her, obsessed with her. Why?
“In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her.” (ibid.)
I’m not quite convinced. He spends pages and pages analysing it, explicating it, but I still don’t quite understand Swann’s feeling for Odette. Love? I don’t think it is. But what is it? It seems irrational.
“And the pleasure of being a lover, of living by love alone, the reality of which he was sometimes inclined to doubt, was enhanced in his eyes, as a dilettante of intangible sensations, by the price he was paying for it—as one sees people who are doubtful whether the sight of the sea and the sound of its waves are really enjoyable become convinced that they are—and convinced also of the rare quality and absolute detachment of their own taste—when they have agreed to pay several pounds a day for a room in an hotel from which that sight and that sound may be enjoyed.” (ibid.)
I would understand perfectly Swann heaping money on Odette and loving her despite not seeing love from her, if he were sexually attracted to her, but he’s not. As the narrator says over and over again, her kind of beauty leaves him cold and indifferent. Perhaps I’m missing the point and it’s meant to be irrational, but if that’s the intention, why does Proust spend so long analysing it?
After introducing Forcheville, a newcomer to the Verdurin set, and satirising the set, Comedy of Manners Proust again leaves for Psychological Proust to write about Swann’s love and jealousy.
“… It was true that Swann had often reflected that Odette was in no way a remarkable woman, and there was nothing especially flattering in seeing the supremacy he wielded over someone so inferior to himself proclaimed to all the “faithful”; but since he had observed that to many other men besides himself Odette seemed a fascinating and desirable woman, the attraction which her body held for them had aroused in him a painful longing to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.” (ibid.)
The writing about jealousy is very good, especially Swann’s mishap and Proust’s use of metaphors, but it remains puzzling to me that Swann becomes so obsessed and jealous when he thinks Odette is “no way a remarkable woman” and “so inferior to himself”.
I don’t get it.